Last Thursday we drove to Salem to visit the Peabody Essex Museum because Bella really wanted to see the Childe Hassam exhibit. Childe Hassam is a lesser-known American impressionist, though during his day he might have been the most important American impressionist. Bella first learned about him in a book called Charlotte in New York, one in a series of picture books about a little girl named Charlotte whose father is a painter. Charlotte’s life intersects the lives of many of the great artists of her day so while reading her diaries you learn a lot about art, a little about French, and something about 19th century Europe and America. Anyway, in the book Charlotte spends the summer on Appledore Island where Hassam spent most of his summers for 30 years. The book includes several of Hassam’s paintings and Bella recognized one of them on a recent trip to the MFA. (I think it was Bathing Pool, Appledore.) So when I saw this article by a marine biologist about the Childe Hassam exhibit at the Peabody Essex, I knew Bella would want to go. I read her the article and she was hooked.
We were supposed to have gone on Wednesday but I wasn’t feeling good and we had all slept in really late. I told disappointed Bella that if she wanted to go we’d have to get up early and get ready to go by 8:30. So this morning I overslept a little, but not as much as yesterday, and found that Ben and Bella were dressed, had eaten, and had done their math already. They filled water bottles and Bella made sandwiches and both of them helped the younger kids find shoes and socks and such. And we got out the door only 20 minutes after my planned departure time.
In the car we listened to Morning Prayer and then Lord of the Rings. It’s a drive of about an hour and a half, so we listened to a great deal of Lord of the Rings. When we got to Salem we had a hard time finding parking. The public lots near the museum were full and our new van is too tall to fit into either of the garages that we tried. But I found a spot on the street right in front of the parish church where Dom and I met and were married. The church lot is closed to parking outside of Mass times, but there are a couple of street spots that don’t have a time limit on them or a meter and we lucked out. It pays to know the area well.
We ducked into the church briefly so the kids could see it— despite Sophie’s protests because she does not like departing from the plan— then walked the two blocks to the museum, a pleasant walk.
We started our museum visit with a tour of the Yin Yu Tang house, an 18th century wooden Chinese house that the museum brought over piece by piece and reassembled in 2001-3. Bella and Ben accepted the audio self-tour wands, the others refused them. I’m puzzled at Sophie and Anthony and Lucy’s animosity to audio tours, this isn’t the first time they’ve refused. I was able to listen to maybe half the audio tour because I didn’t want to linger too long with bored kids who couldn’t hear what I was listening to. I’m especially fascinated by the history of the house after the Cultural Revolution, the red communist posters sprinkled through the house. There were interviews with various members of the family and the tour really did a nice job of connecting the individual and particular history of the family who lived here with the greater context of history. Sophie and Lucy were mainly fascinated by the live fish in the two ponds in the courtyard. Bella seemed to grasp the history a little better and listened to the entire audio tour. Ben listened to most of the tour before he got a little bored. I’m not sure how much he grasped. Photos are not allowed inside the house and it didn’t occur to me to snap any of the outside.
After our tour of the house, we visited a room in the museum where they had many items similar to those in the house which the children could touch and play with. Coats and hats to try on and a broom to sweep with, a mah jong set, tables and chairs to sit on, lots of books to look at, and an interactive online tour of the house. There was also a brief video playing on a loop on a screen on the wall that gave some history and context and showed the process of the house being deconstructed and rebuilt on site and that showed some interviews with the family.
After our Chinese adventure we had lunch in the gorgeous atrium, a soaring light-filled space that bridges the space between the old museum and the new. We grabbed food from the little cafe and had some food that we’d brought from home. They even had Lucy-friendly brownies! The tables had paper and pencils so the kids could draw. Everyone but Anthony made some kind of a drawing. Even I sketched a pot of bamboo that turned into a sketch of the section of the atrium surrounding the pot.
After lunch we visited the Childe Hassam exhibit.
The Globe describes it well: “The museum has tried hard not only to stimulate interest in the island’s history but to evoke its atmosphere. Hidden speakers emit Impressionist music as well as the recorded sounds of crashing waves, evening crickets, and sea birds. Audiences are greeted by a blown-up photograph of the Appledore Hotel, which burned down in 1912. Further in, there are moody black-and-white photographs by Alexandra de Steiguer of the island today, as well as a satellite image on which the outlines of the destroyed hotel’s foundations are clearly visible.
A window-like aperture in a partition wall opens onto a space with chairs from which summer vacationers might have watched the sun set. A desk nearby offers the chance, if you’re so inclined, to write a postcard describing (the suggestion is helpfully offered) “a favorite place where you have spent time.” There’s even a functioning mailbox in which to drop it (postage not required).”
The Boston Globe calls all this evocation of atmosphere “infantilizing prattle” but that strikes me as snobbishness. As a mother trying to keep young children engaged at a museum, I especially appreciate the curatorial endeavors which evoke an atmosphere and create an experience. Does it add to the art? Perhaps not, but neither does it detract. I suspect the PEM knows its patrons better than the Globe does. Certainly, my children and I loved it.
From the big video screen that greeted us with images of the island, waves lappping a sunset shore, we moved on to the paintings and the multimedia approach did not at all diminish our appreciation of Hassam’s paintings.
Anthony pulled me over to one painting of the moon shining on dark water, exclaiming: “The clouds look like angels.” There was another canvas that was almost all blue, sea and sky of deep vivid blue with almost nothing else. That was very fine. And Sophie and I loved the canvases with poppies. And we all admired the sunsets. And compared the watercolors with the oil paintings.
There was a table where you could address a postcard and the museum would mail it for you. You could also draw your own postcard and add it to a sort of visitor’s book photo album. We took advantage and addressed several postcards. Glad I keep an address book in my phone.
After the Childe Hassam (where I could have spent much more time, but children need to keep moving) we visited several other rooms with Asian art. The museum has moved much of the permanent collection about since I was last here to make room for more contemporary Asian art and to reframe much of their permanent collection. The core of the museum was a collection of curiosities that were brought back by merchant captains during the age of sail when Salem was an important port town. Some of the familiar pieces were still on display but the ways in which they’re being displayed reexamine the pieces. (Like the Importing Splendor: Luxuries from China exhibit.) Many of the old familiars were nowhere to be found. I missed the netsuke.
One room had an absolutely entrancing exhibit, a gigantic metal cube carved with a lattice design, suspended from the ceiling, with a light in the middle, that cast beautiful lacy shadows on the walls, floor, and ceiling. Called Intersections, by Pakistani-American artist Anila Quayyum Agha, inspired by Islamic architectural motifs.
We did not visit the American art galleries. Something to explore next time we visit. We did visit the gift shop to buy some postcards and the exhibition catalog. We had a very nice chat with a woman who worked at the shop. After that we bade farewell to the museum.
We revisited Immaculate Conception church, paused in the chapel for a minute’s adoration. And saw an old friend from the days when Dom and I used to meet every morning for daily mass in the year before we were married. Then the anxious kids hurried me to the car and we were on our way back home, with just a brief detour to drive by the house where we used to live. The current owner of the first floor condo, our former apartment, was sitting on the step so I chatted with her for a minute. This house where I lived from the time I moved to Massachusetts until a year after Bella was born has seen so many memories: my grad school days, my teaching days, my wedding shower, my baby shower, our first year of marriage, Bella’s first year of life. It was nice to see it still in loving hands and to hear how it’s being kept up with renovations that maintain the spirit of the place.
Footnote. Before we left Anthony was complaining about his leg hurting, but I didn’t pay much attention. I thought his shoe might be too tight or something. But he limped most of the day and when we got home he was really not able to walk on it at all. His knee looked swollen and I was feeling pretty guilty for all the walking he’d done. By bedtime it was hurting so much he was screaming any time his knee was touched or jostled, even if he himself moved it a bit. So on Friday I took him in and the doctor looked at it, asked how he hurt it and when I said he had no memory of any injury, she ordered a blood test for Lyme disease, which I found confusing as I’d been assuming a sprain, and prescribed some amoxicillin for him to start taking immediately. Well, I’m really glad I took him in and didn’t just try to ice it at home and give him ibuprofen (though of course we did do those things too). Because Monday morning she called and informed me that he’d tested positive for Lyme. Poor kiddo. By then I wasn’t shocked because on Sunday he was complaining about all his joints aching: elbows, wrists, ankles, knees. So he’s going to be on antibiotics for a few weeks. I’m so very glad our pediatrician was so proactive. And I’m still kicking myself for making my little guy do so much walking on an injured knee.